God’s Own Country
Power and the Religious Right in the USA
by Stephen Bates
Hodder and Stoughton July 2008 £9.99
Since Sarah Palin was nominated as the Republican vice-presidential candidate, newspaper articles about her religious views have poured off the presses. See for example, these from Salon: The pastor who clashed with Palin by David Talbot, or Sarah Palin, anointed by God by Alex Koppelman or Sarah Palin, faith-based mayor by Sarah Posner.
To most Britons, it seems quite extraordinary that a person holding such views could be a serious candidate for national office. But to anyone who had read Stephen Bates’ book God’s Own Country when it first came out in 2007 it would not be a surprise. It had good reviews in the Church Times, the Guardian, and the Independent.
The book was republished in paperback in the UK in July this year, with the subtitle changed to more accurately describe the content, just in time for the American election campaign. Inexplicably, the US edition is not due until February 2009, neatly missing what must surely be a major marketing opportunity. However, it can readily be obtained now from Amazon UK.
Although Sarah Palin does not appear in the book, John McCain is mentioned three times. Jim Wallis of Sojourners is quoted as saying:
“John McCain is taking a risk dealing with these people: he has to get the Republican nomination and unless he gets these people’s endorsement from the Religious Right, he has no chance.”
Well, with Palin on the ticket, that endorsement for McCain, which earlier looked quite remote, now appears likely.
The book is aimed primarily at UK readers, and covers a lot of US historical background which one hopes would not be new material for Americans. The purpose is described by Bates himself like this:
There is a tendency here, in the secular UK, to write off American religiosity as alien and monolithic when, of course, it is far from that; and to see all US religious people as crazed fundamentalists, when they are not that either…. What I am hoping to show in this book is that US religion’s relationship with politics did not start with George W. Bush… These motivations have shaped the USA from the beginning and have very deep roots in the American psyche.
In fifteen chapters and nearly 400 pages, Bates therefore has plenty of ground to cover. He keeps the reader’s interest by writing as a journalist rather than as an academic. As with his earlier A Church at War this makes the book a much more enjoyable read.
The Pilgrim Fathers, The Great Awakening, William Jennings Bryan, Mother Angelica, Father Charles Coughlin, Aimee Semple McPherson, Joel Osteen, Judge Roy Moore, Ken Ham, Tim LaHaye, TD Jakes, and many other religious personalities are all included. The religious aspects of recent presidential campaigns (Clinton, Bush) are also covered.
As background to the current US election campaign, it is the ideal, even an essential, introduction to the religious dimension of American politics. Which as the nomination of Sarah Palin demonstrates, will be a crucial factor in the race for the White House this time round as well.